Robot writers: the potential and perils of AI copywriting

Last year, published this article about how Goldman Sachs is investing in an automated copywriting startup. Naturally, this got all the human copywriters here at HN to wondering whether our jobs were about to be lost to robots.

Although the boss assured us that there were no immediate replacement plans, the question remains – does AI copywriting have a future in B2B marketing?

Come on… really?

Even in an age of VR, where the digital world is inching closer and closer to the physical, the ability of robots to take over creative jobs sounds a little far-fetched.
But it’s definitely being worked on; Google’s AI has written some eerie, haunting short poems, and has beaten a grand master at Go, widely believed to be the most complex game ever devised. And there are the incredible feats that IBM’s Watson is pulling off, from cooking up a storm to saving lives.

So why shouldn’t AI be able to match human writers when it comes to B2B copy?

After all, we can do quite a lot to define the sales funnel or buyer’s journey that we hope to move targets through. Our job is to match solutions and messaging to stated (or assumed) customer needs at various points on their journey, and both halves of this equation (solutions/messaging and needs) seem amenable to being specified for the AI.

We can also point to loads of examples of good B2B copywriting for AI to learn from.

And as I sit here with a cold while my computer perches contentedly on the desk, one of us seems rather obviously to be a far more resilient worker…

The rise of the machines?

But I’m not panicking — yet. Because what is possible in principle is perhaps not so much in practice — yet.

Rarely do we receive a brief that is completely unambiguous in intent and complete in every respect. Because, frankly, composing such a brief is time-consuming and our clients are busy people. So they’re looking for us to connect lots of dots by ourselves, and to clarify where necessary through the faster and more efficient process of having a conversation.

Asking even the cleverest computer to reliably identify gaps and then pick up the phone to ask questions feels like a very tall order right now. Maybe in a few years I’ll have to reassess, but right now I’m feeling pretty secure.

What would be cool is access to an AI copywriter to use as an additional tool in my copywriting toolkit.

I’m thinking of how Watson’s recipes work best when filtered through the judgement of a human cook. And of how machine translation can make the lives of translators easier, but rarely works well enough without human post-editing. I can see how a robot copywriter might help me think of options I’d not have found on my own, and that could help me become a better writer.

So bring on the robot copywriters; I’m not scared… yet.

B2B storytelling: How to make your content stand out

Everyone in marketing knows the value of a good story…don’t they?

Historically, the answer for B2B marketing has been ‘no’. But that’s changing, as these great examples of B2B storytelling show.

“How do they do that?” I hear you ask. The article points to some of the relevant factors: LinkedIn has a clearly defined niche and promotes its value relentlessly; Salesforce uses case studies really well; Cisco uses humour. All good weapons in your storytelling arsenal.

All very specific, though. What if humour isn’t appropriate — or you’re just not very good at it? What if you’ve got multiple propositions that all need equal airtime?

What struck us about the examples given wasn’t so much the specifics of what they’ve done well, but the more general principles that we think they exemplify.

When we try to bring storytelling to B2B marketing, these are some of the key things we’re usually aiming to do.

1. Make your audience invest with emotion
Connecting with emotion in B2B marketing is perhaps not as easy as in B2C, but it’s always something to aim for.

The Cisco example shows that humour is one way to do it, if you’ve got the chops. Fear can have its place, too, though too much negativity can have the wrong result (you want to use the carrot as well as the stick.)

Whatever emotion you use, use it with caution; you don’t want people remembering only the emotion, but rather the message you’re using the emotion to convey. This is why one of the most powerful ways to connect with people’s emotions is to tap into the stories of your customers.

As the article points out, for Kickstarter this is very much part of their business (their users tell their own stories), but Salesforce proves that you don’t have to be selling stories to master the art of bringing customer stories to life.

2. Gain trust through authenticity
As we’ve pointed out before, businesses today need to show that they’re open and honest; human rather than a faceless corporation.

But you can’t simply sound authentic, you actually have to be authentic Which means that, like LinkedIn, you really need to take the time to think about developing your value proposition from the customer’s point of view (and if you have many products, services or audiences, you may need to do this for all of them).

Another effective approach is what Salesforce does with its customer community. They’ve developed a space for customers to discuss their experience (positive or negative) without any influence from the company itself.

No selling. No corporate spin. You can trust that everything on there is 100% genuine. People respond to that.

3. Be memorable
The Zendesk Alternative. Need I say more?

Unfortunately there’s no formula for the kind of creative, outside the box thinking that will make you really stand out from the rest. Nor will time and budget always make room for it.

But there are other ways to be memorable. If, for example, you can avoid an over-zealous corporate legal team diluting every bit of your content with ‘maybe’s and ‘might’s, you can be memorable for having and expressing opinions.

B2B marketing is historically very cautious, and we’re not suggesting that you make wild claims that can’t be backed up. But there’s really very little danger in being a little unexpected, a little controversial now and then. If you have something interesting to say, say it!

Let’s move B2B marketing forward
This blog was inspired by an article pointing to a few great examples of B2B marketing. But that kind of article is much harder to come by than we’d like.

Read any article outlining great examples of content marketing (here’s one from the Content Marketing Institute) and you’ll be lucky to find B2B examples referenced.

It’s up to all of us to change that by daring to be more emotive, authentic and memorable with our marketing. Let’s go!

The resurgence of storytelling as a means of persuasion

We love a good story here at HN — whether it’s a novel you can’t put down, a TV drama that’s so gripping you won’t be watching it on catch-up, or the latest Hollywood blockbuster. This is the power of storytelling — it draws you in and makes you hunger for more.

Of course, storytelling isn’t a new idea when it comes to being persuasive. Ancient Greeks, notably Aristotle, understood the role of pathos and ethos — the modes of persuasion appealing to an audience’s emotions and their perception of the speaker’s moral character — in establishing a connection with the audience. More recently, it’s been proven that long copy — when it’s written to influence the cognitive and affective attitudes of an audience — can outsell short copy. That’s despite the trend to distil information into bite-sized nuggets to suit the time-poor society we live in.

We’re not arguing against brevity but in the pursuit of ‘concise’. The bombardment of messages, one fact after another, can sometimes be relentless and tiring for the reader — it takes the pleasure out of reading when it should be a welcome diversion. A swing towards a more engaging approach, where the reader derives enjoyment from reading your material, has to be the answer.

So whether you’re looking to create online or printed copy, the approach remains the same: engaging and thought-provoking copy that involves the reader — whether presented in a hundred words or a thousand — will be far more successful than reams of facts and figures.

There are many ways to make your B2B message more engaging — we’re certainly passionate about video and animations here. But the biggest change we are seeing at the moment is a return to good old-fashioned storytelling, meaning that case studies are taking a far more human angle to draw the reader in and show the personal gain as much as the business benefits. This is great to see, not least because it’s a proven way of creating an environment to sell in but also because it’s just as much fun to write as it is to read.

Have you used storytelling to your advantage? Or were you persuaded by a great story? Why not tell us about it on Twitter, LinkedIn or in the comments section below?

Emotive storytelling — what can we learn from John Lewis?

It’s that time of year when talk in the office turns to the perennial subjects of the weather — will it ever get better? We doubt it; Downton Abbey — will Lady Mary manage a smile this series? Definitely not; and the John Lewis Christmas ad — how will they ever top last year’s? We have no idea but we’re certain they will.

But it’s not just their Christmas ads that are sprinkled with the kind of magic that has even our most restrained colleagues dabbing at their eyes. Take this summer’s advert for… wait for it… home insurance.

Normally, insurance adverts have me searching for the TV remote to change channels — and not just because it’s such a dry subject. Insurance adverts seem invariably to speak to all the things that can go wrong in the home, which (as I’m sure parents will agree) isn’t something I enjoy being reminded about.

The Tiny Dancer ad pretty much dispenses with all of that, and instead paints a picture. And just like the Christmas ads, it has all the elements required to provoke an emotional response: a heartfelt tune to whisk us back to our childhoods, cute kids, an aspirational lifestyle and just a hint of sadness or — because this is insurance — mild peril. You can find out more about the thinking behind the ad with this behind-the-scenes video.

So what does this have to do with engaging our B2B customers? Well, the principles are pretty much the same. You may not want to use endearing children, fluffy animals or Elton John to hook your audience in, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a human angle to help your audience relate to what you do and increase their emotional attachment to the brand. The great thing about this kind of emotive storytelling is that you can let your imagination run riot — think of all the things that your products and services make possible around the world, and somewhere in there you’re almost certain to find a story that touches your heart.

You could even take a surrealist look at your services, like Sungard’s How to Move to the Cloud/Survive a Zombie Attack infographic did. Like John Lewis’ ad, it touches on a very human story (the fear around moving to the cloud) and smoothly connects that with a story that its audience will likely be familiar with — and although a zombie attack is extremely unlikely, the mild peril (again) that courses through both stories compels the reader to act in a way that a dry brochure could never achieve.

Another great example is Xerox’s Chief Optimist campaign where they got together with Forbes magazine to offer a magazine packed with customer stories. This is not just one story but a series, interwoven with tips from Xerox executives. It was extremely successful, achieving an interaction rate of 70% and achieving more than $1 billion in sales.

If you feel inspired to get writing, you may want to have a look at a story we once told about storytelling, or this how-to blog post about the Hero’s Journey. Or why not let us know what you think makes a great story by commenting below, tweeting us or posting on our LinkedIn page?

Selling through storytelling: a parable by HN Marketing

At HN, we’re passionate about telling stories when we write. We know from experience that stories resonate with an audience, and using them wisely can greatly boost the success of your marketing campaign or sales pitch. What better way to illustrate that than to tell you a story? So – are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin…

Geoff sat down in the conference hall, still hungry after the pitiful sandwiches that were a staple at these sorts of events. Prospects for the afternoon weren’t good; two hours on some new software that the CEO thought would really help him improve the running of the IT department. Between that and the sandwiches with their unidentifiable filling, he was certain he would be asleep in ten minutes.

The lights dimmed, a projector whirred to life, but instead of the usual presentation, with lists of USPs and dreary bar charts, Geoff found himself watching a short film about one of the company’s customers. They’d faced problems similar to the ones he faced back in the office, from connectivity issues right down to always having to stay late to run maintenance on the company’s machines. He found that he related to the customer in the story, and when the company’s software was brought in to solve the problems, Geoff saw exactly how it could help him out too.

After the video, there was a Q-and-A session, during which the presenter continued referencing the story; and even got a laugh or two for his joke about the tie and the staple gun. Geoff found himself thinking of how much easier the software would make his job – he might leave the office on time some evenings! – and he resolved to call the company the next morning to discuss his situation.

On his way out of the conference, Geoff was given a leaflet which continued to talk about the software through the characters from the film, and though Geoff was privately dubious that anybody smiled that much, or with teeth that white, he found on the drive back to the office that he was already thinking about what he’d have to do to get the software installed on his company’s network. He was, he had to admit, totally sold on the product.

Of course, case studies are not the only form of storytelling with value in marketing. Keep your eyes peeled for more blogs on storytelling in the coming weeks, as we explore how you can use this technique to boost the effectiveness of your marketing materials.

Additionally, we are re-telling this story as an cartoon, to see the difference between a story told in words and one told in pictures.

Imitation — the sincerest form of consistency?

When Sebastian Faulks was asked to write a James Bond novel to mark the 100th anniversary of Ian Fleming’s birth, he was lucky enough to have a copy of Fleming’s article How to Write a Thriller to hand. This helped Faulks follow Fleming’s journalistic style of writing, and even copy his routine of producing 2,000 words a day.

But a Bond novel is a Bond novel — even if Devil May Care tackled a new theme (drugs) and was set in a location never used by Fleming (Persia, now Iran). With her novel Death Comes to Pemberley, on the other hand, PD James set herself a very different challenge: to write a murder mystery — a type of novel that doesn’t feature in Jane Austen’s oeuvre — that would read like a natural sequel to Pride and Prejudice.

As a lifelong Austen fan, James had many rereadings of Austen’s work to guide her. In her novel, she successfully recreates the world of Pride and Prejudice, reflecting Austen’s narrative style and the original book’s themes of manners, morality, marriage, class and self-knowledge.

Using a consistent style, or tone of voice, and staying ‘on message’ — as both modern-day authors have done — was critical to maintaining the ‘brand image’ of the authors they imitated and to keeping faith with the original authors’ readership.

Staying on brand and on message in all your sales and marketing communications is just as critical to maintaining your organisation’s brand image with your audience — especially if you’re producing a new type of collateral. An up-to-date set of editorial, branding and messaging guidelines will go a long way towards helping you achieve that objective, by supporting the creation of consistently styled and themed content of all types across all your communication channels.

What do you think? How do you ensure your new content stays consistent with what you’ve produced before? Let us know in the comments section, or get in touch on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Does your company’s self-narrative limit your marketing strategy?

Not long ago, the BBC aired a fascinating episode of a series called Four Thought, which featured as its guest speaker the psychotherapist Philippa Perry. In the 15-minute segment (you can listen to it here), Perry discusses three foster children who seem unable to interpret good news because they have never heard it; she tells us that they’ve become victims of their own self-narrative – the story they tell about themselves, to themselves. The children did not tell themselves a happy story, and it changed how they were able to perceive the world.

This got me thinking; what stories do we as businesses tell ourselves, to ourselves? What’s our brand’s self-narrative?

If we tell ourselves negative stories – that business is slow right now, or that our market is in decline and there’s nothing we can do about it, for example – then what opportunities might we miss?

One of the companies I used to work for had just this problem. We told ourselves that our market was only interested in the cheapest price, that our head office in Japan didn’t understand how we worked, and that our colleagues in mainland Europe weren’t cooperating with us because they didn’t like our relative autonomy. I wonder what opportunities we missed because we told ourselves these things. If we’d adjusted our brand’s self-narrative, who knows what new approaches might have occurred to us? Our entire way of doing business could have changed.

Of course, you can’t just go changing the facts – for instance, if you’re in a declining market, there’s no point in denying it – but you can change how you view them. Instead of telling yourself that there’s nothing you can do about your market, tell yourself that you can get your exit strategy sorted and take business from others leaving the market early. Positive thinking can go a long way in changing how you see the market. In the case of my old company, if we’d told ourselves that we needed to show our customers that the cheapest price wasn’t the benefit they thought it was — that there were other measures of value — we could have made some interesting opportunities for ourselves. And if we had taken some more time to understand and support our colleagues in Europe and Japan, we might have been able to follow up on those opportunities with great success.

Changing your brand’s self-narrative won’t just potentially help you find new strategies and customers; it will also change how your customers think of you. If you sound negative, your customers will think of you as negative. If you believe in your company, then your customers will start to do the same.

So what’s the moral to this tale, other than that BBC Radio 4 produces some very thought-provoking material? It’s this: the stories we tell about ourselves have an enormous impact on us and our customers. Make sure you’re telling the right ones.

Your case studies — do they read like The Gruffalo?

You may have noticed that marketing collateral is taking on a much more conversational tone these days. And case studies are no exception — whereas they used to have a rigid structure, they are now presented in a multitude of formats and styles. One of the most popular is that of a story.

Children’s stories are written to capture the imagination or engage them through topics they understand and relate to. Think of a wildly popular children’s book such as The Gruffalo — children relate to the little mouse, enjoy its adventure through the wood, and feel genuine relief as it outwits its adversaries!

As we grow up, stories continue to inspire us. So when you embark on your next case study, why not use storytelling to ensure your readers engage and empathise with the subject, and inspire them to read on?

1. Take your audience on a journey. Set the scene with events leading up to the project such as an untimely phone call, an interrupted dinner or sudden spike in support calls.

2. Humanise your story whenever possible. Don’t just write about solutions and services, but talk about the benefit your solution or service has delivered to an individual, team or community.

3. Be honest about the implementation experience — don’t pretend everything went perfectly if it didn’t. People will relate more closely to projects that encountered teething problems but received expert service and support.

Remember, customers generally don’t just buy products; they buy into you, your team, your company, your service.

Have you experienced the challenge of turning case studies into stories? Why not tell us all about it?

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Are you the information source your audience turns to first

When Nicholas D Kristof returned to the New York Times after five months off to write a book, it was such a relief. Although many fine journalists work for that newspaper, his column is the one I always turn to first, and I’d genuinely missed him.

What makes his articles so compelling? Partly, of course, it’s the topics themselves. He tackles a huge range, from the civil war in eastern Congo, to gun control in the US, to how far we’ve come in eradicating certain diseases. But plenty of other writers tackle these topics too, so why am I so hooked on reading Kristof’s take?

The first reason is simply the way he writes: crisp, clear, accessible, engaging. The second is the way he concretises whatever he’s writing about. That may be by using a personal story — effectively, a case study — such as how trachoma surgery transformed the life of a named woman in Mali, when discussing advances in healthcare in developing countries. Or through the use of statistics, such as a comparison between the relatively low number of Americans who die each year from terrorism compared with the much higher number who die from firearms injuries, to support his argument that the US needs to rebalance its focus on those two issues.

There’s never anything flimsy about Kristof’s columns: you know that thorough research has taken place, and that he has developed a credible thesis and drawn valid conclusions.

Being the source of information your audience turns to first or can’t do without — that has to be the aim of any organisation that publishes articles, news stories, blog posts, case studies, white papers or similar. Kristof’s example of best-practice journalism goes a long way to demonstrating how to achieve that.

Content marketing: the Jedi Master approach

It’s time you told a Star Wars story. And by that, I mean you need to take your prospects along a content marketing version of the mythic hero’s journey:

  • The prospect starts off in the ordinary world
  • The call to adventure is an unsolved problem or unfulfilled desire
  • There’s resistance to solving that problem, until…
  • A mentor (your content) appears to help them proceed with the journey

Your prospect is Luke. You are Obi Wan

When you put your prospect in the position of the main hero (Luke Skywalker), and your content as the mentor who guides or assists the hero on their journey of transformation (Obi Wan), it’s extremely powerful. You allow people to identify themselves within the context of an enduring mythical structure that also makes a hero out of your brand.

Some of the most effective advertising campaigns have tapped into the power of the monomyth that Star Wars adopted, thanks to Joseph Campbell.

While content marketing doesn’t require multi-millions in production costs, it’s helpful to see examples of how the hero’s journey has been used in the past to grow revenue. My favourite is….

Apple’s “Here’s to the Crazy Ones”

Apple has done a phenomenal job of storytelling throughout the years. Their Think Different television ad (the “Crazy Ones” commercial) is one of their best. It says nothing about selling computers, or even computers themselves. But what is does do is connect with a potential Apple user, by comparing them to the great geniuses of modern history.

The call to adventure to change the world is front and center, amplified by a powerful sense of identification with cultural icons such as Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., plus business leaders like Richard Branson and Ted Turner. It highlights the feelings that many people feel; the same feelings that these widely successful figures felt.

It leaves you feeling inspired, understood, and more connected to Apple computers.